Andorra - The Last Resort?
By John Lymer
21 years ago I went to Soldeu on my first ever skiing holiday. In March this year I returned to Andorra, somewhat apprehensively, this time staying in Pas de la Casa which, as of October 2003, is now linked to Soldeu.
Having saved my piste map from all those years ago, I know that there was only 36km of piste and 16 lifts at Soldeu back then. Now, the newly linked area boasts 192km of piste and 63 lifts. There are 36 red runs and 23 blacks and 892 snow cannons cover a third of the area, which I reckon is on a par with many of the other large inter-linked ski areas of Europe. It's easy to get around too, taking about 2 hours from one end to the other, which allows proper exploration of the whole area. There are a couple of gondolas and virtually all other lifts are chairs, with most being high speed quads or 6-man; a far cry from the 1980s when there were just 2 chairs and all other lifts were pomas.
Most of the red runs deserve that grading, perhaps unlike some Italian areas. The blacks tend to be steep pitches, which deserve their grading when icy, but moguls are virtually nowhere to be found, nor are any narrow or rocky gullies. All in all then, the area is best suited to intermediate and advanced skiers who like to cruise red runs, clock up the miles and go from valley to valley. In the right conditions, off-piste opportunities are everywhere, because most of the skiing is open bowls. But, if it's windy, there's very little skiing amongst trees. For the Pyrenees, The Grand Valira, as the Soldeu/Pas de la Casa/Grau Roig/El Tarter/Canillo ski area is known, is quite high and snow sure, with Pas de la Casa at 2100m, Soldeu at 1800m and skiing up to 2600m. Mountain restaurants and those in the resorts are mostly very nice.
I injured my knee in March last year while skiing in the aptly named resort of Purgatory, Colorado .... and yes, the irony hasn't been lost on me! 1 week short of the anniversary of this episode I have now had an operation on it, but before being incapacitated again, there was the important issue of trying to get some skiing done this Winter. With the help of a knee brace and a couple of forays to Rossendale, I gained confidence and went ahead with a holiday in January. All was well, so a last minute booking for early March was the plan, the week before the knee op.
We phoned round tour operators and travel agents from teletext and the internet at the end of February. With one week before departure, things were desperate. Excellent snow conditions throughout Europe meant that everyone wanted to go skiing, or go then rather than later. So, there we were, choosing between the last room of a chalet in France, complete with bunk beds, or going to a 2/3 star hotel in Andorra. Having opted for the latter, the day before our departure we read in the Daily Mail a review of several ski resorts in Europe. Of Pas de la Casa, the report said things like "One of the few resorts where Police are required at 2am to keep order on the streets" and "Summary: Don't go there if you are over 23"! Oh well, at least the skiing will probably be okay, we thought!
As you probably know, Andorra is a Duty Free principality. Pas de la Casa is quite a large resort with about 20 supermarkets, all bursting with enormous displays of spirits and tobacco and every other shop sells electrical goods, though some digital cameras are actually cheaper to buy at home. The streets are reasonably quiet in the early evening, but things liven up much later on, when we were tucked up in bed. We know this because of the 4 lads in their 20s who were in rooms next to us! It has to be said that staying in a cheap and cheerful hotel in Andorra is going to lead to a few disturbed nights. If you're tempted to give Andorra a try, now that it has such a good range of pistes and lifts, you might sleep better in some of the 4 star hotels, which include the Hotel Himalaia at both Pas de la Casa and Soldeu and the Llop Gris and Hotel Nordic at El Tarter. Most or all of these also have swimming pools. Soldeu would be quieter than Pas and El Tarter would be quieter still. Canillo is a nice town with access by gondola, but there is no skiing down to the town and it is at one end of the area.
All in all, Andorra is now worth a second look even if you are an advanced skier, as long as you don't want endless mogul fields and the most difficult of black runs. There is plenty of off-piste open bowl skiing, close to runs and lifts. Do consider it if you are over 23 and like to put miles under your skis, but think carefully about where you stay!
PS from Trudy - skiing good, hotel from hell.